In January 2012, at a sidewalk table in front of a Starbucks on Congress Avenue in Austin — this is a block from the state Capitol, mind you — Ted Cruz was taking a reporter through what sounded like a harebrained campaign for U.S. Senate.
People walking by — politicians, lobbyists and other Capitol creatures — barely noticed him. He wasn’t part of their network, and he was running a campaign once described as “four guys and a couple of card tables.”
He had done no advertising. Voters had no idea he was even running. He was a political nobody.
And here he is, three years later, running for president of the United States.
His problem now — as it was then — is his lack of experience. He’s never passed a major piece of legislation, much less signed one. He’s never run a government or even a government agency. Cruz might well be able to do those things, but there is no proof on his résumé.
His greatest strength now is the same thing that got him into the Senate: Cruz embodies the angry populist had-it-with-government strain of the conservative movement. He antagonizes the establishment, to the delight of conservative voters who think the establishment should be turned out. As his fame rises, that seems more important to them than his lack of experience.
Four years ago, Rick Perry tried something like this. He was at the vanguard of the Tea Party movement within the Republican Party, fresh off a 2010 GOP primary victory over U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison en route to winning a third term as governor. Perry had already been governor for about a decade and a state official for more than 25 years. But he sensed the change in sentiment among conservatives and somehow made himself the representative of the insurgents. It was an almost instinctive switch.
That’s one way the two candidates differ. Perry shoots from the hip and, for most of his career, has been spectacularly successful at it. The big exception, of course, was in that presidential race four years ago, when his lack of preparation and planning quickly turned his campaign into a laughingstock.
Cruz is more of a planner and plotter. Look at that U.S. Senate contest.
Everyone in Texas politics assumed that he expected to lose the race, however carefully, on his way to a future bid for state attorney general. Cruz had never run for office. He was running against a sitting lieutenant governor, David Dewhurst, who had never lost an election and who was personally rich enough to pay for his own campaign if need be.
Cruz had been the state’s solicitor general — the assistant attorney general assigned to handle appeals cases all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. His old boss, Greg Abbott, had his eye on the Governor’s Mansion, and the assumption was that Cruz would run for Abbott’s seat as soon as Abbott gave it up.
This Senate run appeared to be just a building block, a chance for Cruz to get used to campaigning and start assembling a network of supporters who could carry him through a future statewide run.
But Cruz had a plan, and he shared it in 2012. He talked about finishing second in the first round and about how that would weaken Dewhurst in a runoff.
He concluded by saying the only two things that could upend his plans were time and money. The March primaries were just weeks away, and other candidates had more money to advertise and campaign.
Then the federal judges overseeing a challenge to the state’s political districts delayed the elections until May.
Cruz suddenly had time. Meanwhile, national political attention was turning to the race as the latest example of insurgent Republicans challenging establishment Republicans. Dewhurst’s campaign attacked Cruz with a series of ads that raised the unknown candidate’s profile while failing to undermine his credentials. That helped Cruz make the runoff.
Along the way, Cruz solved his second problem: money. Third-party organizations like the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks jumped in behind him, providing the resources he needed to compete. He won the runoff with 56.8 percent.
With his presidential goals, he’s relying on the same wing of the Republican Party and hoping to have the resources to compete against a battery of candidates with more experience and more money.
This one is much harder than the earlier race, and Cruz is a long shot for different reasons this time. Most of the voters have heard of him, for better or worse, and so have the other candidates.
The ambitious candidate who could have an anonymous cup of coffee near his own state Capitol three years ago is a known quantity now.